I remember my mother dancing in the kitchen while we sang Passover lyrics of our own invention to the tune of the Village People’s “Macho Man.”
Matzah, the crunchy, unleavened cracker that we eat during Passover, gets a bad rap. We make fun of “Pesakh bread,” we gripe and moan about having to eat it for eight days, about it causing us to gain weight, about ending up constipated.
But when it counts, matzah does get the respect that it deserves. The English word “Passover” refers to the tenth and final plague that the Lord visited upon Pharaoh, king of Egypt, when he repeatedly reneged on his promise to emancipate the Jewish people from slavery. While every Egyptian household had its dead, we were spared when the plague “passed over” Jewish homes. In Hebrew, however, the word for Passover is Pesakh, which actually refers to the Paschal lamb that we were commanded to prepare and eat the night before our great escape from Egypt. But in the liturgy, the holiday is referred to as hag ha’matzot hazeh, “the festival of matzah that we now celebrate.” Thus, matzah is the very definition of the holiday.
When setting the Seder table on the first night of Passover in my parents’ home, the place of honor in the center of the table was always occupied by my grandmother’s matzah tash. This was a white cloth matzah cover, composed of three compartments to contain the three sheets of matzah used during the service. The outside of the matzah tash featured some of the most beautiful embroidery I have ever seen. Bordered in purple grapes and green grape leaves, a large orange circle contained the Hebrew words, also rendered in orange, for each of the items on the ceremonial Seder plate. Right next to Grandma’s matzah tash would be the Seder plate itself, featuring the symbolic burnt bone and burnt egg, as well as the crunchy celery, hot horseradish, Romaine lettuce and sweet haroseth that we eat during the Seder service.
Not only does the matzah tash protect the matzahs and prevent them from breaking into pieces and crumbs, but the white covering is a sign of purity and respect. When the matzahs are removed from the tash during the Seder, it is something of a grand reveal, the centerpiece of the festival officially presented to our family and friends in attendance. Then, of course, we get to eat the matzahs in all their crunchy glory.
Early in the ceremony, we break the middle matzah in two and, traditionally, the children at the table hide one half of it. Later, when it is time to eat the missing piece of matzah, the adults pretend to search high and low for it, without trying too hard. Shrieking with laughter at the adults’ “ineptitude,” the kids “ransom” the matzah for gifts or money. In some families, considerable negotiation ensues. This is followed by the second reveal of the evening, in which the kids remove the half matzah from its hiding place and the adults praise them for concealing it so well.
The combination of the respect we accord to matzah and the merriment we derive from it is nothing short of amazing. It teaches us to place things in perspective, that it is possible for us to appropriately appreciate the gifts in our lives without taking ourselves too seriously.
It makes me proud to be a matz-o man.